Walk around your local home improvement store and you will see security systems, lighting controls and yard sprinklers that all interface with web services and cell phones. These devices are reaching ease of use and price points that make them feasible to integrate into our daily lives. Factories are now starting to take lessons from the consumer world and move this connectivity into the shop floor environment.
Like their consumer counterparts, industrial sensors and devices are getting smarter and less expensive. They typically run a Windows or Linux OS, have connectivity capability and small footprints, and run with low heat dissipation, making them perfect for this environment. Quality and key performance indicators (KPI) data is “born” on these devices, and without connectivity, the data just sits there. To improve factory efficiencies and quality performance, companies must transport and utilize this data in both quality and management systems, which are typically located in different IT managed servers. Modern “edge-computing” schemes are efficiently able to handle this data transportation in complex factory scenarios, reducing both cost and latency.
Challenges of Getting Data Outside the Production EnvironmentMany of today’s factories operate with isolated, closed-system special purpose data networks. Figure 1 shows a typical closed factory environment. In order to simplify plant operations and maintain security, production lines and even parallel factories don’t commonly share data. Historically, sharing data between the shop floor, the IT network and the Office network has been problematic due to mismatches in security and reliability policies. In many cases, factory managers lack knowledge of IT policies, and IT managers may not understand factory requirements (for example, not pushing Windows updates directly to factory devices). VPN protocols are often required but can be hard to set up and cumbersome to use.
Modern Factory ConnectivityA modern factory communication scheme allows quality managers and key production decision makers to access the data they need-either on premise or in the cloud. Figure 2 shows a connected version of the factory environment that we saw in Figure 1. It is designed to integrate mobile and stationary devices, in-browser applications and enterprise servers and cloud services, communicating securely and firewall friendly while complying with all existing enterprise policies. In this version, all of the services are connected in an “edge computing” or distributed environment.
The communications between all the operational functions in Figure 2 is handled via HTTP, with messages formatted in XML, allowing firewalls and other smart filters to inspect travelling telegrams. Underlying standard security mechanisms, such as IPSec and HTTPS/TLS, are used to encrypt telegrams between the nodes to ensure maximum security of the system. Each node within the systems has a “service” within that facilitates data exchange with multiple other services. A “service” is defined as a small piece of software executing node-specific business logic such as compression, filtering, alarming, consolidation or a simple calculation on data flowing through the service.
A special “relay service” serves as a connection between the factory floor and the IT realm, allowing only “designated data” to pass from the factory floor to IT services. This is accomplished by using “port 80 outbound,” which allows company firewalls and IT policies to remain intact and in place.
Value to the OrganizationImplementing a distributed quality intelligence system across an organization offers many benefits, including:
Historical archiving of key quality data (i.e. for auditing and analytic purposes).
Better ability to meet governmental/quality guidelines.
Getting data to business decision makers-making them aware of situations in near-real time even on their mobile devices.
Improving overall quality by sharing data with other factories, mobile devices and value chain partners.
Improving service supply chain- fixing things before they break.
Participants in the value chain include plant-floor workers, quality managers, vendors and key business decision makers. These types of systems are easily expandable allowing for growth and flexibility as business changes.